HRW: Türkiye bears responsibility for abuses in Syria

Türkiye bears responsibility for the human rights abuses and potential war crimes committed by Turkish and proxy forces in Turkish-occupied northern Syria, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 74-page report documents various abuses, including abductions, sexual violence and torture, by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and Military Police. “Ongoing abuses including torture and enforced disappearances of those who live under Turkish authority in northern Syria will continue unless Türkiye itself takes responsibility and acts to stop them,” HRW Deputy Middle East Director Adam Coogle said. “Turkish officials are not merely bystanders to abuses, but bear responsibility as the occupying power, and in some cases have been directly involved in apparent war crimes.” 

Türkiye has occupied various parts of northern Syria since it began conducting military operations in the region in 2016. Türkiye, who aimed to reduce Kurdish presence along the Türkiye-Syrian border, received support from local armed groups that collectively became known as the SNA. According to HRW, Syrians have faced severe displacement, human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations as a result of the Turkish incursions. The report highlights the arbitrary arrests, abductions, and unlawful detentions carried out by the SNA factions and the Military Police, with Kurdish residents receiving the worst of the abuses due to their perceived ties to Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. “Everything is by the power of the weapon,” said one former resident who lived under SNA rule.

One of the main concerns for human rights advocates is the forced return of Syrian refuges who have been living in Türkiye. The country is currently home to over 3 million Syrian refugees, and the HRW report calls attention to Türkiye’s arrest, detention and deportation of thousands of these refugees in Türkiye since 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in 2022 that the nation aimed to return one million Syrian refugees to their home country by creating “safe zones” for them in northern Syria. According to HRW, however, these areas are extremely unsafe due to the absence of rule of law and the dire living conditions. “Turkey’s occupation of parts of northern Syria has facilitated a lawless climate of abuse and impunity – it’s the furthest possible thing from a ‘safe zone,’” Coogle stated.

In February, a UN report found that Syrian refugees face severe human rights violations upon return to Syria. HRW agreed, claiming that “[e]xpelling large numbers of people to regions where they have a credible fear of persecution or torture would breach Türkiye’s obligations under international law.” HRW emphasized that as an occupying power, Türkiye must protect residents from violence, hold responsible those who have committed abuses, restore and maintain public safety, and provide reparations for victims. The organization also recommended that Türkiye and the Syrian interim government allow independent legislative bodies immediate and unobstructed access to their controlled territories. 

In January, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, along with Syrians for Truth and Justice, filed a war crimes criminal complaint against Turkish-backed militias in the Afrin region of Syria. The complaint calls for an investigation into the human rights abuses and war crimes occurring in the region since 2018. Amnesty International also accused Türkiye of war crimes in 2019 due to military operations that killed and injured multiple civilians in northeast Syria. Such operations have continued in 2024, with at least six civilians wounded in Turkish shelling and airstrikes in January.

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